A word on the ‘well-spo­ken’

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Bar­bara Mur­phy Bar­bara Mur­phy is a life­long Bal­ti­more res­i­dent. Her email is bar­bara.mur­phy1980@ver­i­zon.net.

One morn­ing while try­ing to knock out my in­box full of emails, I overheard a con­ver­sa­tion that made me pause. A man­ager nearby was de­scrib­ing a job can­di­date he had re­cently in­ter­viewed. He de­scribed the can­di­date as smart (al­ways a good at­tribute for any job), ex­pe­ri­enced (this helps with train­ing and ex­pec­ta­tions), and well-spo­ken. In­stantly, I knew that this can­di­date is African-Amer­i­can. How do I know this? Be­cause in all of my many years of liv­ing in Bal­ti­more and work­ing for global cor­po­ra­tions, I have never heard the term “well-spo­ken” used to de­scribe a per­son of any other eth­nic­ity. “Well-spo­ken” is code for black in Amer­ica.

I know the man­ager hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion was of­fer­ing praise for this in­di­vid­ual. I know that he was try­ing, like I try, to be fair and un­bi­ased and in­clu­sive in his man­age­ment style and work prac­tices. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is to make sure ev­ery­one is treated fairly. I un­der­stand in some small mea­sure how things in the world are un­fair to black peo­ple, who are of­ten all lumped to­gether as low-in­come peo­ple too. That’s an­other bias. I know that if you are black and you don’t get the job, the apart­ment, the mort­gage loan or the pro­mo­tion, you al­ways won­der if it was be­cause of your race or some other rea­son.

The dis­crim­i­na­tion our coun­try is plagued with is sly. Many white Amer­i­cans feel that they are not prej­u­diced. They work with black peo­ple, go to lunch with them, at­tend college with them and maybe even live next door to them — aka “I have black friends.” These white Amer­i­cans don’t want black driv­ers pulled over by po­lice at a higher rate than those of other races. They don’t want chil­dren in some schools to be ed­u­cated less well than those in other schools. They don’t want a gen­er­a­tion of young black men ware­housed in prison for crimes that oth­ers are not jailed for. They don’t want black Amer­i­cans tar­geted with voter ID laws to sup­press hard-fought and hard-won en­fran­chise­ment.

With all of that com­mon ground, there is still un­der­ly­ing bias be­cause many white Amer­i­cans are not com­fort­able and fa­mil­iar with black peo­ple in their personal lives. White Amer­ica doesn’t know how Black Amer­ica cel­e­brates hol­i­days, cooks a meal, gets a hair­cut, wor­ries about sur­viv­ing a traf­fic stop or trains their chil­dren to be­have in the world. White Amer­ica doesn’t know what it’s like to have in­di­vid­ual personal space chal­lenged daily as Ta-Ne­hisi Coates de­scribes in his book “Be­tween the World and Me.” White Amer­ica re­ally can’t even imag­ine it.

We don’t know the de­tails of each other’s lives. Black Amer­ica and White Amer­ica have been com­fort­able in their sep­a­rate worlds un­til re­cently. The school cafe­te­ria ta­ble self-seg­re­ga­tion (both black and white stu­dents do this), the church pews filled with peo­ple who all look alike no mat­ter the de­nom­i­na­tion, and even Hol­ly­wood, which gears its movies to­ward spe­cific races. They’re all ex­am­ples of how we live in the same geo­graphic coun­try, but our personal ex­pe­ri­ences are worlds apart.

We all need to reach across this race line and in­vite those of other eth­nic­i­ties into our lives. That means be­ing in each other’s houses for din­ners, for movie nights, for babysit­ting swaps and help­ing each other out on home re­pairs. It means know­ing how both cul­tures deal with el­derly par­ents, smug teenagers and ba­bies who won’t go to sleep when you want them to. It might be un­com­fort­able at first to open our­selves up to the un­fa­mil­iar, but we have to try to stop mak­ing as­sump­tions and de­ter­mi­na­tions about what we re­ally don’t know about each other.

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